For a fifth year, the General Assembly has declined to pass a bill to strengthen state oversight of tolls on the Dulles Greenway.
On Jan. 30, the House Committee on Labor and Commerce narrowly failed to report Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87)’s House Bill 523, the latest attempt in a years-long effort to rein in the Greenway’s annual toll increases. Subramanyan’s bill is the latest version of legislation first introduced in 2015 under then-Del. David I. Ramadan.
The committee’s 8-8 tie vote last week, with five committee members absent and one abstaining, meant the bill would for another year die in committee. Loudoun’s sole representative on the committee, Del. Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10), is also co-patron of the bill, and argued for it and voted to pass it. County Attorney Leo Rogers and Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce Vice President Grafton DeButts had also traveled to Richmond to argue for the bill.
The bill briefly showed signs of life again earlier this week, when on a motion by committee Vice Chairman Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan, Jr. (D-48), from Arlington, the committee voted to reconsider the bill. But rather than go to a vote, Subramanyam said Thursday, the bill will now go by for the year.
“I’ll keep fighting to protect commuters from rising tolls,” Subramanyam said. “This is an ongoing conversation with all the stakeholders and the rest of the Loudoun delegation, and I am optimistic we will find a solution soon.”
Since 2013, the Greenway has been guaranteed at least a 2.8 percent toll increase each year. This year, that legislation expires, putting the Greenway back before the State Corporation Commission to argue that its tolls cannot “materially discourage use”—that the tolls aren’t chasing drivers onto other roads—and that the tolls provide no more than a “reasonable rate of return.”
The Greenway’s ownership, Toll Road Investors Partnership II, owned by Australian multinational firm Atlas Arteria, has already filed a request to raise tolls for the next five years. Those increases range from 5 percent to 6.8 percent, and would put tolls in 2025 at $6.15 per one-way trip in off-peak hours, and $7.90 in peak hours.
A commuter traveling twice a day on the Greenway during rush hour, five days a week, 52 weeks a year would pay $4,108 in tolls annually.
Del. Dave A. LaRock (R-33), who this year also introduced a bill to add oversight to the Greenway, which was folded into Subramanyam’s bill, published a statement excoriating fellow General Assembly members. He said the bill failed because “other members of the legislature who represent Loudoun County refused to unite around this year’s effort.”
“I commend Delegate Subramanyam for a strong effort, but in contrast, Delegate [David A.] Reid (D-32), Senator [John J.] Bell (D-13), Senator [Jennifer B.] Boysko (D-33), and Senator [Barbara A.] Favola (D-31) have some explaining to do,” LaRock wrote.
Some of Loudoun’s delegation have expressed skepticism about bills like Subramanyam’s, citing Greenway representatives’ arguments that the bill would break an agreement between the state and the corporation.
Some Loudoun County elected officials have indicated they intend to fight the Greenway on that at the SCC, and other local organizations like the Chamber of Commerce have argued against the Greenway’s toll increases in the past.
But that fight, if it happens, will happen under the same legislation under which the Greenway’s owners won even higher toll rate percentage increases than they have in the last seven years. When the road opened in 1995, the toll was $1.75, and originally the Greenway’s tolls were capped at $2. In 2013, the first year of the regulation guaranteeing annual toll increases, tolls were already at $4.90.
But back then, said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), nobody was challenging the Greenway’s rate increases in front of state regulators.
“The burden will be on the Greenway to meet the SCC’s test to justify a toll rate increase, and the County is planning a vigorous challenge,” Letourneau stated. “Because the automatic toll rate legislation has expired, this the first time in many years that the SCC will have the opportunity to dive into the merits of the issues.”